Happy New Year!
I have been considering various points of departure for this year’s blog posts and have arrived at several which are interrelated. As part of a lecture series I recently presented, I looked at various “slow textile” practices from historical, cross-cultural and contemporary perspectives. Many slow textile practices that have been a part of human culture for millennia endure to this day and are enjoying major resurgences. In their contemporary form, I wonder how many of them fare in terms of issues like energy and other non-renewable resource costs, social and environmental justice, and so on. And further, what, if any, are the hidden costs of pursuing many of these practices today? Which of these textile practices will endure in the event our highly complex society becomes less complex in the face of dwindling resources and energy access, or – to put in the parlance of the times – which are most sustainable over time and don’t require massive energy/non-renewable resource inputs?
I want to engage in an honest examination of these issues in connection with my own work but I have queasy feelings about this whole line of inquiry. Part of me argues (some would say justifiably so): “Hey, the practices of a small-scale artist have no measurable bearing on the rate at which resources are being depleted and the planet degraded. I mean, I’m not a big industrial polluter who spoils the waterways, depletes energy supplies, practices labor abuses and displaces indigenous populations, etc., etc. – What impact could I possibly have on that? And, wait a minute! Having finally found my voice in this medium, must I now undermine the very means of that expression by looking at these questions at all? All I want to do is keep cultivating my craft. There is still much left to say and do!” In the early 21st century, we keep on with life as we know it but realize it is fraught with contradiction.
As I begin to examine the foundations of my creative practice, I wonder whether what I do is sustainable. I don’t have to look very far to see that the materials available to my small workshop do come at a price. For example, we generally don’t know much about the undyed cloth and fiber that comes from abroad – some of it may be inexpensive for us here, but may be manufactured or processed at significant cost to the source countries, whether by contributing to degradation of local waterways, promoting unfair labor practices, causing local community disruption, etc. Many colorants used by small-scale textile artists are petroleum-based (although that is beginning to change and I will be looking more closely at natural dyeing in future posts), and I can foresee a future wherein the use of some of these supplies may become cost-prohibitive for the small workshop. The cost of shipping has already become burdensome and the lack of local/regional sources for many of these supplies and materials makes it difficult to nurture a local supply economy without major reimaging and retooling. For a time, I will continue to draw on resources with which I am most comfortable; however, I will also be actively engaging in reimaging and retooling for what I hope will be a more sustainable practice.
To help me along the way, I will draw from history, share personal observations and collect stories from contemporary textile and fiber artists/craftspeople of our failures and successes, philosophical musings and hands-on, real-world solutions. For now, I think one of biggest challenges to functional textile artists in particular is to find sustainable means to achieve our design goals. Then we must reeducate and redefine the standards by which our work is evaluated. For the larger body of textile/fiber craft, this could indeed be the basis of an entirely new branch of theory and criticism where work is evaluated not only on material and formal terms, but on social and environmental ethics terms. I hope this will be an illuminating and empowering process, one that inspires lively discussion alongside a renewed purpose in our creative intention and activity.